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HOW A SMALL CITY CAR WENT FROM UNDERDOG TO TOP DOG AT THE MOST GLAMOROUS RACE IN THE WORLD.
The Monte Carlo Rally screams glamour, knuckle whitening, high-octane excitement and a 1,000 km plus race that tests skill, strategy and total car performance like no other.
Conceived as a “final destination Monte Carlo” race by Prince Albert I of Monaco, the rally tested innovation in automobile performance and design, along with the mettle of the drivers. In its first inception, somewhat arbitrary and quirky judging took into account not only each car’s performance but also its condition on arrival at the final destination (and even the number of passengers and pieces of luggage being carried). This led to some contentious results and some truly bizarre rally attempts as in 1957 with a bus carrying ten passengers.
How it all started.
One of the most fascinating stories in motorsport begins in 1959 when John Cooper, racing team owner and visionary car designer, discovers the Mini. His Formular One team is just about to win the world championship thanks to its revolutionary mid-engine concept, yet it took Cooper quite a while to persuade Alec Issigonis and the British Motor Corporation that a racing version of the small car had just as much merit. Cooper is thrilled by the Mini’s extremely agile handling, which is confirmed by initial test runs. He presses on despite all doubts. He makes sure the power is increased. And, in doing so, forms an unbeatable team. In September 1961, the first production versions appear on the market: the Austin Seven Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper. The press and public are enthusiastic about the new models – but they wait to see if the little Mini can prevail over the significantly more powerful competition.
David versus Goliath.
The announcement that Mini intended to enter the prestigious rally was greeted with a level of disbelief. Mini was a car revered for its energetic and gleeful drive experience for urban householders. But a rally racer? It seemed unthinkable that such a compact city focussed vehicle could possibly cope with the rigours of a long and arduous rally such as Monte Carlo Rally. Even after the visionary refinements incorporated by John Cooper to Alec Issigonis’ go-kart feeling car, the tuned engine was still up against cars three or four times more powerful. In those days of two wheel drive rally racers, huge distances and long mileages had to be covered. Undeterred, the newly created tartan red BMC Works Mini Cooper S topped with its high visibility white roof, driven by Paddy Hopkirk and co-pilot Henry Liddon, was entered for the 1964 event.
Early rallies featured one of the most intense, stuff-of-legends stages of any race. A Bollène-Vésubie to Sospel section traversed the Col de Turini, not only a mountainous route - with multiple hairpin bends, often layered with compacted ice and fresh powder snow - but also a section run at night. It was here in the most hostile of stages that Hopkirk and Liddon were able to trounce the competition. In what has gone down in racing folklore as the “night of the long knives” the Mini’s agile handling out manoeuvred the competing teams. Seizing their advantage Hopkirk and Liddon sprinted the last leg through Monte Carlo’s streets to confirm the historic victory was indeed theirs.
The following year, Timo Mäkinen and Paul Easter defended MINI's supremacy. In 1966, a scandal arose when the three first-place Minis were disqualified along with others for allegedly non-compliant auxiliary headlights. Then, in 1967, the "Rally Professor" Rauno Aaltonen made it a third mountain victory for Mini with Henry Liddon as co-driver. The David versus Goliath duels captured the imagination of the public and sparked Mini Cooper mania worldwide.
Up to this day the enthusiasm remains, and the car's sporting genes can still be seen in the John Cooper Works models of today.